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Fort McMurray Fire Aid concert aims to raise funds — and spirits

Country-roots artist Corb Lund was at the start of a European tour, travelling from Germany to Italy when a bandmate showed him a picture posted on Twitter. It showed a wall of flame over Fort McMurray, Alta., a place he knows and loves.

“The first thing you think about is ‘Wow, are people even going to get out of there.’ That’s the first thought,” the Alberta-born artist says.

His next thought was to rush home to help. But with 25 more gigs on the schedule, that wasn’t an option. Instead, like many other Canadian performers, he began quietly working behind the scenes to create a concert event to raise money and show support for the people of Fort McMurray.

Three weeks later Lund had signed on — along with 15 other acts — to play Fire Aid, a benefit concert for Fort McMurray to be held tonight in Edmonton.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the massive fire, which forced a hurried evacuation and halted daily life in the northern Alberta town. People have started to return to the city, but some will be out of their homes for months to come as clean-up crews deal with the devastation.

“If I ran a backhoe I’d volunteer that way. If I was a carpenter I’d try to help out that way, but I’m musician so that’s about all I could do. But yeah, hopefully it will make people pitch in and feel good about it, feel better about it,” Lund says..

Other Alberta performers also heard the call. Nickelback and Ian Tyson signed on. So did Blue Rodeo, with front man Jim Cuddy adding another benefit concert in Toronto.

Driven by musicians

Fire Aid co-chair Tim Reid says soon after the fire, artists began contacting organizers of the 2013 Flood Aid concert, which raised $ 2.3 million for victims of the southern Alberta floods. They wanted to bring that level of support to Fort McMurray.

Fire Aid poster

Canadian musical acts were quick to volunteer for the 2016 Fire Aid concert in Edmonton. (Fire Aid)

The Oilers and Eskimos, along with Edmonton Northlands, all pooled their resources to help bring together a major musical event, in a matter of weeks.

“We all agreed that this was the right thing to do and very quickly we decided that we should make it happen and that’s how Fire Aid came about,” says Reid, president and CEO of Northlands.

Reid says the concert is about more than raising money. It’s to show support for the people of Fort McMurray, and keep Canadians aware of the challenges the city is facing.

“Although it was certainly front and centre for a long time we wanted to make sure that not only Albertans but Canadians realize that this is going to be a long process and we all have a role to play in supporting Fort McMurray as they rebuild.”

Fear and trauma of fire ‘deep rooted for kids’

Proceeds from the concert go to The United Way of Fort McMurray, which supports 30 local agencies. Post-fire, many of those organizations are struggling.

“We have organizations that aren’t even able to open their doors yet, and staff that aren’t back,” says Diane Shannon, executive director of the Fort McMurray United Way.

She says dealing with the psychological needs of children is a top priority.

“When you drive through walls of fire and you see your street on fire around you, you can’t forget that. And you can’t forget the fear and the trauma is really deep rooted for kids that experienced that kind of thing.”  

But the very agencies that are most needed to help children are barely coping. Shannon says two of the city’s main family-centred organizations have suffered water and mould damage.

“Toys all need to be destroyed and the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. So those kinds of things take time. So we need those programs there, we need them active, we need them supporting the families and the children.”

‘Music is part of everybody’s life’

The support of Canada’s top-tier artists is music to the ears of Phil MacDonald. He, his wife and ten-month-old daughter were among the tens of thousands who fled the city on May third. They camped for a month at Wandering River, about 200 kilometres south of the city.

Phil MacDonald

Fort McMurray evacuee Phil MacDonald says support shown by the Fire Aid concert helps people from the community through tough times. (CBC)

“We were part of what is Canada’s biggest tragedy and to have people talking about us and helping us and doing all this really does make us feel proud. I know I am anyway.”  

Times have been tough for everyone, he explains, and gestures such as Fire Aid helps lift spirits as everyone struggles to find a new normal.

“Just a little something like that, a gesture — music is part of everybody’s life.”  

Fire Aid begins with a tailgate party outside Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium at 2:00 p.m. local time. The concert begins at 5:00 and will be simulcast on SiriusXM 173. There will also be a live feed to Fort McMurray’s MacDonald Island Park.

CBC | Arts News

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